Craig Fowler examines the arguments for and against Gordon Strachan staying on as national team boss.
Why he should stay
It’s thin margins in international football. When you look at Scotland’s results across the entirety of this group, there’s only really one game which stands out as terrible, same as the previous campaign. On this occasion it was Lithuania at home, the last one was Georgia away. Otherwise, Scotland performed exactly as you would expect them too, maybe even above how we expected them, seeing as they managed to defeat both Slovenia and Slovakia at Hampden, having gone undefeated against Ireland and Poland the previous campaign.
These achievements aren’t nothing. These are the sort of matches, even the home games, which Scotland would have failed to win in the recent past. Scotland were in pot 4 for the Euro qualifiers and finished fourth. They were pot 3 entries in this occasion and finished third. Strachan hasn’t underachieved, he’s done exactly as Scotland’s ranking dictated he should.
It’s difficult to stay so consistent. The problem is there hasn’t been a result Scotland weren’t expected to get to make up for those slip-ups, much like Ireland taking four points off Germany. They were seconds away from it against England but couldn’t hold out. Small margins.
His team selection has been heavily criticised by supporters. But it’s not like he’s leaving out a Gareth Bale-type figure, someone who is so clearly above the rest of the squad in terms of talent. There is a much of a muchness throughout the squad. Look at social media before any match and you’ll see the huge variances in what people believe the team should be. Not just the personnel, but the system as well.
He gets particular criticism for relying on players from England rather than the Scottish top flight. Doesn’t he have every right to do so? The English Championship is the sixth richest league in the world. Fans are emotionally attached to the likes of John McGinn or Callum McGregor because we see them up here every week, but if they were better players than James Morrison, James McArthur or Barry Bannan, then why aren’t clubs from down south knocking down the door to sign them? Sure, there has been interest in McGinn, but mainly from Nottingham Forest, a club who’d also presumably like to have Bannan among their ranks as the diminutive midfielder continues to shine for Sheffield Wednesday. As for McArthur and Morrison, they play in the English top flight. If McGregor and McGinn were clearly better players, then surely Crystal Palace or West Bromich Albion would be driving a lorry full of cash across the border to get them.
While there’s little doubt the negative “there might be no-one better” argument is nonsense, we still have to respect the fact that change might not be necessarily for the better. The SFA would be doing very well to recruit a manager without a black mark on their CV. Regarding some of the names being banded about - David Moyes, Paul Lambert - do fans honestly want these guys instead of Strachan? At least we know the players are fully behind the manager. If Scotland lose that kind of harmony, they could be looking at a disastrous campaign of epic proportions.
Run it all back and Scotland should still feel confident about getting a top three berth at the next Euro qualifying campaign.
Over the course of Strachan’s tenure, Scotland have still trended in the right direction. It’s slower than the nation wanted, but they’re getting closer.
Why he shouldn’t
The above was incredibly difficult to argue because this writer believes Strachan’s tenure has run his course. For several reasons.
Firstly, that genetics argument. It’s just so infuriating. It doesn’t stand up to scrutiny. Just like in Slovakia, when he used a similar argument, it fails to take into account what we actually saw on the park.
Scotland didn’t lose two goals against Slovenia from set-pieces because a giant came striding into our box, out-jumped everyone and powered a header towards goal. They were defensive mistakes, lapses in concentration, the type that have been too prevalent under Strachan.
Excuses for the manager earlier in the campaign revolved around the paucity of quality centre-backs. Wales and Northern Ireland were kicking our backsides in terms of international achievements, both qualifying for the Euros and advancing to the knockout stages, but the difference was obvious, said some, they have better defenders.
It’s a tired argument which fails to take into account how football actually works. Put it another way: have Rangers got any better in defence by swapping out Rob Kiernan for Bruno Alves this season? No, they haven’t. The veteran summer signing is clearly the better defender, but like his predecessor he’s not offered a lot of protection in his team’s system. A lack of organisation in the defensive make-up of a team will expose any centre-back.
Despite the lack of talent, the head coach managed to construct something approaching cohesive in the second half of the campaign after shipping far too many simple goals throughout the early matches and the failed Euro qualifying campaign. Unfortunately, we were dealing with such narrow margins through our own ineptitude that when mistakes inevitably occurred against Slovenia we had nothing to fall back on.
One reason for keeping Strachan has been the supposed momentum Scotland now have going forward. Four wins and two draws from six games is impressive, but it’s remarkably selective. It’s either recency bias or intentional ignorance. The campaign lasted ten games, not six. And in three of the first four games Scotland were nowhere near good enough. (That’s without mentioning Malta’s equaliser or the dodgy penalty and red card which aided Scotland’s 5-1 win.)
One of the biggest problems back then was team selection. There are areas of the team where it feels like Strachan’s on a hiding to nothing regardless of who he picks, but the stubborn refusal to select Leigh Griffiths was maddening. It went all the way back to the Georgia game in the previous campaign. The more people called for it, the more he dug his heels in. It was almost typical that the game where he finally relented, away to England, was probably the fixture were fans wanted the Celtic striker to start the least, seeing as he’d be robbed of service with Scotland likely to be entrenched in their own half for large parts of the game.
Then we come to last night. In this writer’s opinion, the initial set-up wasn’t as bad as people have made out. Without Scott Brown and Stuart Armstrong it was always going to be hard, away from home, to compete in the middle of the park with Slovenia. Instead, Scotland were set out to defend and counter. Darren Fletcher and James McArthur don’t have the legs to perform a box-to-box role in a 4-4-2 system, so they covered the defence. The support was left to the full-backs and the wide players, with Griffiths and Chris Martin doing a decent job in the first half of making the ball stick down the other end.
Slovenia didn’t have a decent chance until they scored, which came from a set-piece. Ok, these things happen. The gameplan was going well until that point, let’s see if we can keep it go... oh wait, what? Martin is coming off and Ikechi Anya is coming on? For a man who’s been annoyingly slow to change his preferred method of play in the past, this was a baffling turn, especially when the sub was lined up before Slovenia equalised, and he stuck to it anyway.
Strachan then reverted to type by refusing to change it again, even though it patently was not working. Slovenia swamped our box with attack after attack as nothing stuck up the other end with Griffiths isolated. It wouldn’t be until seven minutes after Slovenia scored their second, which had been coming, that a second change was made. Sometimes managerial tenures are defined by such decisions, and this should be Strachan’s.
There are other aspects to take into account, such as his frosty relationship with the media and refusal to blame the team or himself, which leaves the fans feeling alienated. With hefty prices for tickets and dwindling crowds it should be enough to make the SFA act, if they weren’t already clearly asleep at the wheel.
If he’ll come, and the indications are that he may be interested, let’s bring in Michael O’Neill and see if someone can use this “momentum” to finally get Scotland over the hump.
Two campaigns is more than enough evidence. Scotland have had their chances, but we’ve not taken them, and the responsibility for that lies with the manager.